Author’s Note: This blog entry is part of a series I started to explore two of today’s most popular eLearning rapid development tools: Articulate Studio and Adobe Captivate. Here is a link to an article that contains the whole Articulate vs. Captivate series.

In the first entry of this series, I started a series to explore two of today’s most popular eLearning rapid development tools–Articulate Studio and Adobe Captivate. Now I’d like to talk about each of them separately and in more detail, starting with Articulate Studio. In the process, I’ll also discuss some of the best practices that may help with your development.

Just in case you’re new to Articulate Studio, I want to mention that there are four main components: Articulate Presenter, Engage, QuizMaker, and Video Encoder. If you need info or a refresher on what each component does, have a look at Articulate’s website.

Let me start by asking you a simple question: What is Articulate Studio?

The answer I most often hear goes something like this: “Articulate converts PowerPoint to a Flash presentation.” Technically, this is a true statement and it’s one of the factors that attracts many people to Articulate in the first place—it doesn’t require much in the way of programming skills to jump on board. Although using Engage and QuizMaker requires more practice, most users can get familiar with these Articulate Studio components in a short period of time.

For those shopping for rapid eLearning development capabilities, it can seem as if all you need to develop a good course is PowerPoint content to run through Articulate and out comes eLearning. This is an especially attractive proposition for those who are tasked with “converting” instructor-led training courses to be delivered as eLearning.

The problem that I hear over and over from both eLearning developers and actual learners is that the “PowerPoint look” of Articulate courses wears thin very quickly. Something’s missing, but what?

To answer this question, I have to stray a little from talking about tools and take a quick dive into instructional design. As you probably know, the traditional use of PowerPoint is in classroom-based training, which is also called synchronous or instructor-led learning. By contrast, Articulate eLearning courses are, of course, an asynchronous (self-paced) learning experience.

You probably see where I’m headed already: even if the course contains the same content, we have to take quite different approaches once the delivery medium changes. To substitute for the richness of activities and interactions that can take place in the classroom, we need to build a new layer of richer interaction and engagement on top of the content in the PowerPoint in order to make it effective as an eLearning course. When this layer is missing, people see the course as a shallow PowerPoint presentation, not as real learning.

I know that this problem is not just an Articulate Studio problem, but because of Articulate’s direct link to PowerPoint, it seems even easier for Articulate users to fall into this trap. Remember, a PowerPoint presentation is only one ingredient. One ingredient doesn’t make a cake.

Fortunately, Articulate Studio gives plenty of options to produce a richer eLearning course that goes beyond PowerPoint. For example, Engage interactions, quiz questions, Flash movies, and even customized Flash games. In addition, Articulate allows you to deliver your content through branched scenarios, which is another effective tool to keep learners’ attention.

Articulate Studio offers a lot of eLearning potential in one package. I’m not going to do a feature-by-feature list here–you can easily get that information elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to highlight just a few of features that I think are significant and either little-known or not often used to their potential:

  • Articulate’s QuizMaker tool offers a plenty of new features to enhance the learning experience. For example, you can insert a blank page to deliver more content or the background story in order to set up a scenario. Also, with the “Slide View,” you can adjust the location of your question, the choices, and the related graphics. You may also use the drawing tool to create simple graphics or add special treatment to the existing graphics. The new timeline feature allows you to adjust the timing on all of the elements on the page. For example, you can synchronize your choices with the audio.
  • With the annotation tool in the Presenter, you can easily add professionally-designed annotation shapes and spotlight effects to your presentation. This is extremely efficient and effective when creating software demonstrations with highlighted areas.
  • The source file management is easier than ever before. The “Send to Articulate Package” function packs everything you need, including the PPT deck, audio/video clips, and even the attachments, in a zip file. This makes it very convenient to hand off the project to client or to a different developer.

After this discussion of my favorite features, I feel I have to deliver a brief word of warning. I’ve been using Articulate for about 7 years now and the product has evolved significantly. Many people used to see Articulate as a simple tool that would enable anyone to develop eLearning. This may or may not have ever been true, but what has happened over time is that eLearning developers and instructional designers have demanded more and more sophistication. And Articulate has largely delivered, but this means that to get the most out of Articulate, you have to be more and more skilled as a developer to take advantage of the richer features. Therefore, I think it’s best to look at Articulate as a “development suite” and the results really are closely linked to the developer’s skill and the instructional designer’s understanding of how to design learning to take advantage of Articulate’s strengths.

Since most of the Articulate courses involve an audio presentation with closed caption text, it requires a different design approach in PowerPoint. Research indicates that when audio and static text are presented at the same time, audio is the most dominant and efficient channel. Therefore, it’s often a distraction if the bulleted text repeats the audio. In many cases, it’s more effective to replace bulleted text with graphical elements like photos, illustrations, and flowcharts, and animations.1

In my previous blog entry, we talked briefly about software training. Can I use Articulate to develop this training by itself? Again, it depends how and what you want to achieve in the training. If the training only involves demonstration, you can insert a series of screenshots on the PowerPoint slides, and then spice them up with the annotation tool in Articulate. Gerry Wasiluk posted some excellent information on this topic as comments to my first Articulate vs. Captivate blog entry.

Or, you may opt to use one of the screencasts tools, for example, the Screenr. With these tools, you can easily export your screencasts to video clips, and then insert it into your Articulate course later. However, if you want to drop in a comprehensive simulation in your course, I would say that Articulate is not your best option. If software simulation and is your goal, you should consider Captivate, which I will cover in the next entry in this series.

1 Of course, a transcript should be available so that learning content can be accessed by those who cannot hear the narration.

Author’s Note: This blog entry was the beginning of a series of a series I started to explore two of today’s most popular eLearning rapid development tools: Articulate Studio and Adobe Captivate. Here is a link to Part 3 of this series.

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